We have a demand problem with the automation profession

By Dean Ford, CAP, PE

I realized from the beginning of my 25-year-plus career in the automation profession how critical automation is to the operations, profitability, and environmental stewardship of the businesses and manufacturers of products and suppliers of services humans need to survive. The undeniable fact is that society would be a very different place without automation. Environmental catastrophes, inconsistent quality, and the safety of products and people would be out of control.

The conversations the Automation Federation (AF) has had with government about what we do has propelled our profession into a spotlight it has never had before. There is now a model that defines and outlines our profession. Cybersecurity is now a discussion about critical infrastructure instead of information technology (IT) and data confidentiality. With all of this mission-critical need placed on our profession, it is interesting to me that we have not seen a material increase in demand by end users for trained, degreed, and certified professionals.

As much as ISA and AF have made external attempts to address the demand side of this with industry, academia, and government, we are still falling short. Volunteer leadership needs to embrace the valuable contribution and advantages of outreach and advocacy. Individual member benefits are a small piece of the larger picture. As other professional societies have learned, focusing outward more than inward should be a major goal. The proof of this statement is in both the decline in membership numbers of ISA and the underfunding of important programs, such as the Automation Federation and the automation certifications. This is a topic for another conversation, however.

Your destiny

I propose a different approach. As I have written in the past, who owns your career? You do! We need to adopt a larger view individually and understand how our employers work, how they make money, and how we add value to the bottom line. We need to advocate for ourselves in budget meetings. We need to know how to speak the language of our accounting folks and chief information officer to demonstrate the value we bring and to elevate the profession and our power within the organization.

How do we do this, you ask? A few simple steps are:

  1. Read books by Peter Martin, PhD: Bottom Line Automation and The Value of Automation. Either one demonstrates how you can show your organization the value of what you offer. Maybe you can even convince IT to spend some money to upgrade the Windows XP servers that are running mission-critical software on your plant floor by delaying the meaningless incremental upgrade of the organization's laptops.
  2. Get involved, get involved, get involved. When you can bring an industry standard, expert advice, or other well-adopted solution to the table, others will have to listen. It still surprises me how many people attempt to reinvent solutions and information that is readily available from the automation community.
  3. Get certified. Yes, you might have to pay for this yourself. You will likely have to take some personal time to do it. But this is the career you chose. Should you not spend some time, energy, and money to commit to it? If you do not want to get left behind in this rapidly growing and expanding field, you should show some dedication to it. This also shows your employer you are a lot more marketable, which increases your negotiation position.

As I write this, ISA has new leadership challenges, and members need to get involved to be sure organizational agendas reflect the entirety of the profession. This comes at a time when we can least afford such inward looking visions, both financially and professionally. However, we shall overcome these changes that demonstrate the need for a complete governance overhaul. We cannot lose sight of the more important need to increase the outward demand for automation professionals.

I leave you with a call to action. Please stand with me to help ourselves. Get involved in your career. You have chosen to be part of the single most important profession on earth and owe it to yourself and the profession to be active. There are countless ways to contribute. Much of the activity does not even require you to leave your office or home. If you want to be a part of shaping the automation profession, please contact me. I will be happy to talk with you and guide you to a very rewarding activity.

 

About the Author

Final Say Sep-OctDean Ford, CAP, PE, is an active senior member in ISA and COO of Westin Engineering, Inc. He currently advises the water industry on the mission-critical needs for automation and the importance of organizations built to support automation. Ford participates in many ISA standards committees, including the Government Relations and Workforce Development committee for the Automation Federation. He has a BS in electrical engineering from Missouri University of Science and Technology and is a licensed control systems engineer in 14 states.

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